Roughing it, with luxuries still intact
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Shirley le Guern
Durban - Traditionally, off-roading was for those who didn’t mind spending the night in a tent under the stars without the luxuries of beds or bathrooms.
Gwahumbe Game & Spa – a small private reserve about an hour from Durban and 45 minutes from Pietermaritzburg – seems to have come up with the perfect way for city slickers to take on some rough terrain while still enjoying the luxuries that a four star, AA superior-accredited lodge with a great kitchen and well-stocked wine cellar can provide.
This is the perfect way to get that luxury 4x4 that has up until now only mounted kerbs and perched on pavements exactly where it belongs.
Gwahumbe Game & Spa is near the small sugar farming town of Mid-Illovo and a delightfully quick and easy escape from the noise and stress of the city.
It is at the confluence of the Msunduzi and Gwahumbe Rivers from which it gets its name. It is a recognised natural heritage site, home to hippo, giraffe, zebra, a variety of antelope and an abundance of bird life. Many have the habit of popping up alongside the 4x4 tracks and the most important rule of the not-strictly-a-road is that animals have right of way as you dodge rocks and boulders.
What is most striking – whether you are driving through the reserve towards the lodge or taking on the roads less travelled – are the scenic cliff faces which are offset against plateau grassland and cross lush riverine forests.
Just when I began to think that this fascinating combination of tranquillity and off road adventure was one of KwaZulu-Natal’s best kept secrets, I discovered that many of the big motor companies duck off to Gwahumbe to test and launch new models.
In this instance, we were trying out Toyota’s new “iron fist, velvet glove” luxury Fortuner SUV as well as its tougher cousin, the Hilux, courtesy of Bidvest McCarthy Toyota.
Another not-so-well-kept secret is that the BBC Top Gear presenters recently made a stop-over and I’m pretty sure that, in addition to the challenges of the track itself, the crew got to enjoy the excellent picnic spot at the cave and waterfall – the perfect setting for a sundowner (not too many mind, as there is always the return leg).
The trail takes between two and four hours to complete as drivers wind up mountains to 700m above sea level from 400m in the river valleys. En route, they have to negotiate mud, sandy tracks, steep inclines, slippery grasses, river crossings and a variety of interesting obstacles.
For a 4x4 novice like me, that was quite an adrenalin rush. But I was told by ever patient and reassuring instructor, Noel Stapelfeldt, that the Gwahumbe 4x4 trail is not necessarily technically difficult.
It is 9km long with a number of different trails. With a grading of between one and three, it caters for all makes of four-wheel drive vehicles, including those without low range but which have sufficient ground clearance. Guides are not essential but training can be arranged at the reserve.
The Gwahumbe experience is definitely not all mud and dust. A family-run business created out of a rehabilitated sugar farm, the lodge has a wonderfully warm atmosphere where personalised service comes naturally.
The lodge itself has beautiful views, but the best are kept for the beautiful pool area and new boma. Once the sun has set, this makes the perfect spot to enjoy delicious potjies or braais around a central bonfire.
Rooms at the lodge are ultra comfy after a day in the bush and there are also quality self-catering accommodation options.
The cherry on top has to be the [email protected] It is set in a private garden and offers massage rooms, a hydro and a steam room. Qualified therapists provide treatments for the whole family, such as the African wood massage – perfect for easing away the stiffness and bumps following a tough day of off-roading.
The ideal stay at Gwahumbe has to include not only the 4x4 trail but also other attractions that make this a great outdoorsy getaway, especially during the idyllic KwaZulu-Natal winter.
You can enjoy formal game drives, nature walks, bird watching and tranquil fishing spots. There is also an 18km mountain bike track.
l Call 031 781 1083/087 150 3475, e-mail: [email protected] or visit www.gwahumbe.co.za.